The ‘white hat hackers’ of tomorrow

Students from 20 technical high schools compete to detect viruses, protect software, in systems they’ve never seen before

Members of the winning team show off their Certificate of Achievement (photo credit: Courtesy Amal Group)
Members of the winning team show off their Certificate of Achievement (photo credit: Courtesy Amal Group)

As protecting computers, networks, and national infrastructures becomes an industry all to itself, educational institutions are beginning to train students specifically in the art of “white hat hacking.” That includes developing skills to reverse-engineer software, learning to detect the presence of difficult-to-find viruses, and using — to defend and protect systems — the same nefarious methods that bad, “black hat hackers” use to invade and disable them.

Israeli schools are on the case, and this week, the Amal network of technical high schools held a nationwide online detection and hacking race, challenging them to analyze computer systems and applications they had never worked with before. Students from 20 different Amal network schools gathered at Cisco Israel’s R&D center in Netanya to participate in a unique “white hat” hacking contest, aimed at beefing up their analytical skills.

Each group of students received two computers, which were installed with software designed specifically for the competition. This was the first time the students were exposed to the programs, in areas including brain research, medical imaging, music software, and computer games. The students were required to learn in real time how to run the software, and solve tasks assigned to them by the jury.

A spokesperson for Amal said that the main skills needed to succeed in a contest like this — and in computer analytics in general — are not necessarily programming-oriented. What’s needed is agility, intelligence, and quick on-the-run thinking, to swiftly deal with the pitfalls and surprises that crop up in this line of work.

The winners were five students from the Amal school at Ein Harod in northern Israel. After the event, students heard a lecture on cyber security from a top Cisco rep.

Speaking at the contest, Ravit Dom, CEO of the Amal Group, said that “although this was a competition for our students, our real goal is to train a new generation of top-tier computer experts who will provide significant benefit to the state of Israel, providing students with the skills to successfully compete in cyberspace. It’s part of Amal’s efforts to lead in entrepreneurship, innovation and excellence, and investing heavily in the development and advancement of information technology.”

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